Search and rescue costs stack up after busy season in Chelan County

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CHELAN COUNTY- Chelan County Search and Rescue agencies have had a busy summer this year, nipping at the heels of last year’s record-breaking year for the agency.

Chelan County Emergency Management’s Rich Magnussen said funding the rescues can be expensive as the costs are pulled from the Sheriff’s Office budget.

“It’s been real busy, last year was a record year for us and this year is shaping up to be real close to what last year was,” Magnussen said. “We’ve had a lot of water rescues this year, we’ve had to deploy our swift water rescue team on quite a few calls.”

A large number of calls came from the Enchantments in the Mount Stuart and Dragontail Peak areas. Chelan County Emergency Management helps oversee the incidents, calling on Chelan County Search and Rescue Volunteers, Chelan County Mountain Rescue and various fire or police agencies for response.

“In the state of Washington you cannot bill for search and rescue services, so it comes directly out of our budget so we try to budget for it but it’s a tough thing to put a dollar on it a year earlier,” Magnussen said, adding that agencies who assist on incidents will not charge each other for their time or resources.

For Chelan County Search and Rescue teams, the most common rescues are hikers who find themselves in over their head on the trail. The specific costs for search and rescue incidents vary depending on the resources needed and time spent, with a helicopter totaling $509 an hour with the pilot and a deputy on average at $55 an hour on overtime.

“A lot of our missions are people just getting themselves into situations that they probably shouldn’t have, maybe doing things that are a little above their skill level,” Magnussen said. “A lot of our swift water rescues this year have ended in fatalities, all could have been prevented by wearing a personal flotation device.”

Cost is the last thing on rescuer’s minds as they venture into the wilderness to save a life, but it is something agencies like to remind hikers who could have prevented their call.

“When someone is injured out in the wilderness we respond and put whatever resources we need to to get the people out of there and save their life,” Magnussen said. “Each search and rescue is different, but we’ll look at it and send someone a letter of expense that kind of breaks down what it costs to go out and rescue them.”

Letters of expense are not sent to all subjects involved in search and rescue incidents, especially not in cases of fatality.

“If there’s a fatality involved or a serious injury we won’t send the family a letter of expense after that,” Magnussen said. “But on some of these search and rescues, where people probably put themselves in situations they shouldn’t have been in, then we’ll send letters out on those. It just lets them know what the Sheriff’s Office spent, how many volunteer hours we had and how many man-hours we had in the field.”

Magnussen said the letters sometimes bring donations in response, to contribute to the agency’s efforts.

“Our volunteer groups do get quite a bit of money, people will donate to both sides– Chelan County Mountain Rescue and Chelan County Volunteer Search and Rescue,” he said.

In the most recent rescue on Dragontail Peak, an emergency beacon was activated to alert Washington State Emergency Management, who then called the county’s emergency management office.

“As far as search and rescue missions go, that was probably one of the cheaper ones when a helicopter is involved, but they vary especially if we have some that are multi-operational periods where you’re flying a helicopter for two days in-a-row,” Magnussen said. “This one did have $3-or $4,000 to the county budget, it’s not cheap but it is one of the cheaper ones.”